The Evolution of Screenplay

By Asha Anandkumar

Alfred Hitchcock has infamously said, “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script”. The bedrock of filmmaking lies with the art of screenplay and when the script is cracked, the rest follows smoothly. The screenplay which is essentially the written work or a documented version of the visual art that is displayed in main films or television series is at the core of the project. From Akira Kurosawa, Ismat Chughtai to Stanley Kubrick the film space has seen some splendid works of screenplay over the years. The essence of a film is captured in the screenplay. There are no special effects, no green screen but characters and dialogues being given life on paper.

For decades several arguments have surrounded the role of screenplay in the literary space. A large group of writers and filmmakers involved in screenplay acutely feel that due credit is not given to screenplay and are constantly fighting for its inclusion in the literary space. This discourse had led to the recognition of screenplay as literature by some and has broadened the conversation surrounding the legal consequences of the same.

It is widely accepted that the “only thing constant is change”. This can be applied to every aspect of life and holds relevance in the area of language and literature. In a fluid space like art and writing, this holds, as styles and creative quirks change as time passes by. The screenplay has passed through the prism of time and has changed ever since films emerged as a source of entertainment. With the evolution of the film industry, gradually the script became a bedrock of an efficient production unit by translating “abstract ideas of a film into the concrete images and sounds that is the film itself”.[1]

 With the introduction of sound and the gradual transformation of the economic position of the film industry, the screenplay also changed. The emergence of film studios controlling all aspects of production had an impact on the scriptwriting process. The landmark judgment of the United States Supreme Court in the United States v. Paramount Pictures[2], in 1948, altered the scenario for an emerging “Hollywood”. The court essentially held that studios had violated anti-trust laws and were made to sign a consenting agreement that they would not allow block booking of films and they had to be sold individually. Before this judgment, the studios essentially had a hands-on control on how the direction and script worked and created a very controlled environment for screenwriters.

Today there are a vast number of screenwriters who are immensely passionate about their work and want to publish their screenplay. They call for recognition of their work in the literary space and say screenplay should also be recognised as literature and not just a lucrative blueprint for a film to succeed. Even though there has been a shift in the importance of recognition of screenplay at large it is still considered the “uncle in the attic” throughout film history. Most of the time the screenplay was wholly abandoned or ignored once it had served its purpose. Historically, the screenplay was at most considered as a semi-legitimate piece of literary work that was meant to simply satisfy the needs that arose out of film production. There were some exceptions wherein 1904, the scenario of J.Marion’s The Suburbanite was considered a “dramatic composition” and was copyrighted by Biograph and American Mutoscope.[3] It can be seen that screenplay emerged at a modern time of western literature in 1910 and was fully recognized by the 1920s when Robert Ince identified the difference between the writing and execution of a film.

The modern aesthetic appeal of the screenplay has also been amplified where it keeps invading traditional literary spaces, especially that of novels. You can see contemporary forms of a screenplay being adapted in contemporary fiction as it seen is as a reflection of the modern art form of film and thus is used to capture the spirit of the 20th-century lifestyle. When we take a look at the method in which Quentin Tarantino, the infamous American filmmaker, and screenwriter, we can acutely witness his approach to the legal and literary recognition of the script.

In 2012, Tarantino first said, “my scripts are novels”. In 1994 he had won the Academy Award for Django Unchained for best screenplay and has continued developing mind-blowing scripts. He believes that writes this novel in the form of a script and every day he comes on set and adapts the novel into a film. As mentioned before, when people in the screenwriting or film space vocally call for literary recognition it automatically creates discussion around the same. He recognizes that the script is not just a mere means for him to achieve his film production process. In a 2012 BBC interview, he states ” I don’t write a blueprint that the movie’s going to be and I follow it and make the finished film, I want the script to work as a piece of literature.”[4]

In his script, he can enjoy the writing and reading separately while also being able to place due focus on the film. In 2020, Tarantino signed a two-book deal with Harper Collins, to publish his novelization of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and another work of non-fiction.[5] When screenwriters focus on publishing other traditional literary works, it is more likely that their published screenplay will also gain more recognition. One of the best-selling published screenplays to date is Django Unchained and the 1996 film Trainspotting written by Irwin Welsh. Tarantino’s approach to screenwriting and the respect he places on his writing has inspired young screenwriters and filmmakers to be actively looking at ways to get recognition for the screenplay as literature.

Copyrighting your work in the 21st century, in an increasingly competitive field of the film has become a matter of utmost significance. Hollywood or any film industry for that matter is notoriously known for stealing ideas and not giving credit where it is due. If your ideas are sold or brought to Hollywood, then you must ensure that you are given due recognition for your work. Before distributing the script to studios, agents, and production companies one should copyright the screenplay to protect one’s ideas. A fully completed script with a clear plot outline will be eligible for copyright protection.

In 2015, Tarantino faced a $100 million claim of copyright charges for his film Django Unchained which was allegedly copied from an original screenplay called ‘Freedom’ by scriptwriters Oscar Colvin Jr and Torrance J Colvin. [6] The script for Freedom was registered to the Writers Guild of America in 2004 and through many agencies had published the script online. Allegedly there were stark similarities between freedom and Django Unchained and the key plot lines were taken away for which they demanded due compensation.

Copyright claims can affect the publication of screenplay and cause immense delay and cause the public to lose interest. Sometimes false claims of copyright can be filed to gain attention through dragging a famous figure. This is why nowadays; all filmmakers and production studios pay millions of dollars on a legal team so that they face no turbulences in the future.

The screenplay has been influenced by politics, economics, and industry changes. It has evolved as a respectful creative form that can truly have the autonomy it deserves. There needs to be an increase in the acknowledgment of screenplay in the academic sphere that will spearhead genre recognition. It should not be dismissed instantly and the material we have witnessed from screenwriters, across the globe from all languages has been phenomenal.


[1] F. Dennis Lynch, The Evolution Of A Film Script, 17 Journal of the University Film Producers Association 10, 10 (1965).

[2] United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 U.S. 131

[3] Kevin Alexander Boon, The Screenplay, Imagism, and Modern Aesthetics¸36 Literature/Film Quarterly 259, 259 (2009)

[4] Anonymous, Quentin Tarantino: “ My scripts are novels”, BBC News ( Jan 18, 2022, 7:40 am), https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-20711077

[5] Mike Fleming, Quentin Tarantino Sets Two-Book HarperCollins Deal¸ Deadline (Jan 18, 2022, 8:00 am), https://deadline.com/2020/11/quentin-tarantino-two-book-deal-harpercollins-novel-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-cinema-speculation-70s-movie-deep-dive-1234616927/

[6] Jessica Goodfellow, Quentin Tarantino faces copyright claim of $100m for Django Unchained, The Drum ( July.18, 2022, 9:00 am ), https://scroll.in/latest/801192/quentin-tarantino-sued-for-copyright-violations-in-django-unchained

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